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FAMILY CHARACTERISTICS AND SMALL TOWN LIFE
THOSE sections of rural New England which have possessed natural advantages sufficient to restrain the young people from their common propensity to emigrate to the cities or to the western states, are rich in family legends which show that frequent persistence of family traits which is exceptionally pronounced in the six little states of the northeast.
A well-known family had occupied a prominent position in a certain New England town for several generations. During all this period certain pronounced characteristics had afforded amusement to the people of the community, especially those of the father and daughter whose mental processes are illustrated by the following narratives.
Young Man Who Had "Speerit"
The father had reached quite an advanced age, and although very amiable, had become exceedingly economical. There were people who would have said he was stingy — a common enough accusation against the aged. Besides his, commodious house in town, he had a small farm and every spring he looked about and engaged some young man to undertake the double role of handy man around the house and farm laborer. The boy who took that job could be always sure of steady occupation; he was expected to rise early and work late.
One spring the old gentleman succeeded in securing a perfect treasure. A boy of eighteen years or thereabouts was engaged from a distant farm and came to town prepared to enjoy, what was to him, metropolitan life. A naturally willing worker, he soon found that there was little opportunity for recreation, at least during the daylight hours. In time he gradually made acquaintances who soon confirmed his own opinion that he was being imposed upon. He was still in awe of his employer, however, but finally an occasion developed when he could restrain himself no longer. On a very hot evening, after a hard day on the farm, he was directed to go into the wood shed and saw up some very dry fire wood of various uneven lengths. This was too much, and with a fluency which absolutely astonished both himself and listener, he proceeded to tell his employer just what he thought of his stinginess. For several minutes the old man stood perfectly amazed, the boy meantime hastening to his room, where he put on his best clothes and went up town. He naturally expected to be discharged, but such was not the case. After thinking the matter over a few minutes, the old man began to chuckle to himself, after which he shuffled off up the street, telling one citizen after another of his recent extraordinary experience.
"I like that boy," said he. "He has speerit."
Lady Who Secured a Wardrobe
This old gentleman had a wife who was in delicate health and a middle-aged daughter who was not delicate. She was a very capable housekeeper and as a rule not socially inclined. She stayed at home month after month, year after year and finally her married sister and sister-in-law, neither of whom were reluctant to point out the path of duty to their amiable parent, insisted that it was only right that "Sally" should have a vacation. They pictured out the need of change of scene, incidentally laying particular stress upon the even greater need of a replenished wardrobe. The old gentleman was very reluctant to yield to their persuasions, especially in the matter of the appropriation for clothes. It gave him a pang to pass over the money necessary for the outfit, but under such effective concurrent pressure, the outcome can easily be imagined. He finally resigned himself to the inevitable, wrote a handsome check and costumers were put to work.
While these numerous family discussions were going on, "Sally" had seemed to show but a languid interest. This was attributed by her sisters to the fact that she had stayed at home so long that she didn't want to go anywhere else. In the light of subsequent events it would appear that their diagnosis was correct.
After the first pangs of separation from the cash, the father began to take an extraordinary interest in the outfitting process. He passed his judgment on the different fabrics, the styles into which they were to be made up and seemed to be looking forward with anticipation to the time when "Sally" would start out on her vacation trip with a wardrobe equal to that of any woman who had left that town in a long time.
Finally the outfit of new dresses, coats, hats, and other essential articles was complete and the day was set when the vacation should begin.
According to the plans, Sally was to go to New York to meet a family friend, visiting other points of interest as her impulses might suggest. The day of departure arrived, and Sally's father was alive to the situation. A maid had been secured for a certain limited engagement and she was called early and told to prepare breakfast. The old man knocked vigorously on Sally's door to make sure that she didn't oversleep. Breakfast was ready and Sally did not appear. Her father began to be anxious lest she miss the train. He sent the maid up to knock at the door, who returned saying that Sally had answered, "All right." Still she did not appear and it began to be certain that if she went that day she would have to go on a later train. Her father was indignant at her unwarranted indolence. He went up stairs and pounded once more on Sally's door, which she opened, clad in her usual kitchen apparel. The old man demanded an explanation which was promptly forthcoming.
"I didn't have the slightest intention of going to New York any of the time, but I knew that the only way I could ever get you to furnish me with any decent clothes, was to pretend I was going. Now I have the clothes and I am glad to have them, and I am going to stay at home and you can pay up that maid and let her go about her business."
It must be regretfully stated that no record has been preserved of what Sally's feminine relatives had to say to her.
In certain social circles astonishing heraldic pedigrees make their appearance, heretofore all unsuspected by the average list of acquaintances, but there can be no camouflage about family pedigrees in a strictly rural neighborhood. An eminent financier in a New England town had a relative who did not add any prestige to the family escutcheon. Having little inclination to work and a very moderate earning power even when he did work, a small annuity which he received was greatly appreciated by this scion of a lofty family. For a short time after his quarterly allowance arrived, "Lafe" lived in luxury.
Story of "Lafe" and the Livery Stable Man
A widely known hotel man of the community had as a side interest, a small but well equipped livery stable, which in the days before the automobile, was a handy source of income. On a certain sultry summer day who should ramble into the livery stable but Lafe. The owner happened to be at the office and Lafe negotiated with him for the use of a horse and buggy, for a couple of hours. Knowing his man, the proprietor suggested that he had better pay in advance, as he himself might not be there when Lafe returned. This was but an agreeable detail to the man who was just then in funds and he passed out the money without any hesitation whatever, after which be took his seat in the buggy which had been run out of the barn preparatory to harnessing the horse to it.
As stated before, it was sultry and Lafe was not only oppressed by the heat, but also by several drinks he had enjoyed shortly before. He fell asleep. Therefore, when the horse was led out, it was decided that he better be led back into the barn again for a time and await developments- Lafe slumbered on, finally arousing himself just about the time when the two hours were up that he had contracted for. The livery stable man was not a trickster, but he greatly enjoyed a joke. He informed Lafe that he had had his ride so far as he was concerned, having occupied the buggy and having been in a position to use the horse, if he so desired. Lafe saw the joke, and being a good loser he promptly went away with a broad grin on his face, resolving to "get even." The livery stable man industriously spread the story which came to Lafe's ears quite frequently.
Some months afterwards the stable owner happened to be about sixty miles away taking a train for home and behold there was Lafe, also taking the train. The memory of that unenjoyed but paid for ride was still lingering in Lafe's mind, so he asked the practical joker if he would not advance the money to pay his railroad fare.
"Why should you pay any railroad fares, when your cousin is a big owner in the railroad?" was the reply. "You just tell the conductor who you are and he will pass you without any ticket."
"Will you back me up, if I do tell him?" asked Lafe.
"Certainly," was the answer. "That will be all right."
Whereupon Lafe took his seat in the front end of the day coach, the livery stable man being seated with a friend in the back part of the same car. Enter the conductor. He approached Lafe, demanding a ticket. Then followed a brief but animated conversation as a result of which Lafe turned and made a signal to the man in the rear of the car, who promptly nodded his head. The conductor therefore proceeded about his duties, collecting fares from various passengers, until he approached the livery man, who, stating his destination, handed him a mileage book. The conductor took the book and promptly detached two fares instead of one. When the owner of the mileage book asked the reason, he was informed by the conductor that he had been told by the man down in front that he would get his fare at the other end of the car and that he had confirmed the arrangement.
It may be taken for granted that among the habitués of the hotel and livery stable, the foregoing transactions were fully appreciated. Lafe was temporarily a hero, and no one enjoyed the joke better than the livery man did.
While it was regarded absolutely essential in small town life to be able, in New England phrase, to "take a joke," there was of course a reasonable limit. A joke ceases to be a joke when there is any evidence of ill nature or maliciousness back of it. Just where the dividing line comes in of course varies with the circumstances.
In a certain rural town there was a young man whose tendency to slow wit was counterbalanced by a very amiable disposition. It is not surprising therefore that there should have been those who were inclined to take advantage and subject him to ridicule. This was less annoying to the victim of these jokes than to some of his friends.
Man Who Wanted to Fight a Year Afterward
One election day, in early September, the amiable young man in question, after depositing his ballot and going down the stairs from the hall where the election was held, was intercepted by some local clown who, taking him entirely off his guard, kicked him down the last few steps of the stairway to the floor below, where he landed in a very undignified attitude. With unruffled amiability the victim of horse play scrambled to his feet, brushed the dust from his clothes, and joined heartily in the empty laughter of the onlookers.
His close friends had not happened to witness this episode, but heard of it before leaving the hall. On their way home they expressed themselves very indignantly and asked the amiable victim why he submitted to such abuse, assuring him that he could easily make short work of the other man and there was no reason why he should put up with any such treatment. This put the matter in an entirely new light to the man who had shown such remarkable good nature a short time before. He thought deeply and said nothing.
The year rolled around and another September found the same assemblage at the town hall for the election. Everyone had forgotten the stairway incident of the year before, with one exception, and that was the victim. To the absolute amazement of all present, he hunted up his astonished antagonist of the year before and it required the combined efforts of all the young man's friends to keep him from committing serious assault on the joker. He was restrained with some difficulty and taken to one side of the hall where his friends proceeded to explain to him that his grievance was now outlawed.
The trademark has become no small factor in modern business. Its imitation by rival firms is not only frowned upon as a breach of ethics, but in most civilized or even semi-civilized countries, it is illegal.
There was one such violation, however, many years ago in a small town, none of whose inhabitants perhaps had ever before heard of such a thing as a "trademark" in its modern meaning.
One of the chief sources of income to farmers in that section was butter-making. At that time all butter was put down in wooden tubs, which were mostly hand made. An old growth spruce tree of good size and of a certain grain would be sawed into right lengths. These would be split with great care into staves. These in turn would be shaved down as smoothly as possible, enclosed in ash hoops and fitted out with a cover, the rim of which was likewise an ash hoop.
An old man who had become quite skillful in manufacturing these butter packages, finally acquired such pride in his work that upon finishing each tub he would take a soft lead pencil and write his initials in large flourishing characters. As he was practically illiterate, his monogram was all the more amusing to others.
These packages were not only supplied to certain farmers, but were furnished to a nearby country store to be carried in stock. There were other builders of hand-made butter tubs who were not so careful about the finish of their articles.
One evening this creator of artistic butter tubs meandered to the village store. A waggish individual who saw him there and enjoyed his self-satisfied and expansive manner in the store, had one of those bright ideas which so frequently afflict humanity. In the back room of the store there were some butter packages manufactured by a rival Of the artist before mentioned. These tubs were a little more uncouth in their getup than usual. The maker of this brand of packages had the excellent taste not to identify himself with his completed product by any monogram. Selecting one of the roughest looking of these packages, the joker borrowed a pencil and soon produced a crude imitation of the well known initials. He then walked into the inner store, handed the butter tub to the rival manufacturer and asked him how he ever had the face to put out such coarse looking work as that. The artist indignantly denying any responsibility for the tub, or even knowledge thereof, his attention was immediately called to the trademark on the bottom.
This was the last straw and the creator of masterpieces in the butter-tub making art, nearly produced a riot. He accused the storekeeper of connivance and a gross fraud on the community and threatened dire proceedings in other directions. The disgusted proprietor of the store finally succeeded in explaining the matter. The perpetrator of the joke slipped out of the store by the back way and eventually the rumblings of wrath and outraged culture subsided.
It has been before stated that the satisfaction of living on fairly amicable terms with one's neighbors in a farming region tends to develop not only much forbearance but diplomacy as well. This was illustrated in a certain case where the bone of contention was a line fence.
Early Example of Camouflage
A certain man who lived on a small farm had a perfect mania for lawsuits. This was not so uncommon in earlier days, as it was rather in the line of policy of certain pettifogging lawyers to encourage litigation.
Between his farm and the adjoining one there was a division fence which seemed to be always falling to pieces. The man who lived on this adjoining farm suspected that the cattle were not altogether to blame for the frequent breaches in the fence. The cattle continued to come over onto his land and he finally decided to devote one whole day, if necessary, to watchful waiting. He therefore established himself in a clump of bushes where he had a pretty good view of quite a stretch of the fence, and not very long afterwards he saw the half grown son of the belligerent neighbor approach the division line and loosen some of the rails to such an extent that it would be an easy matter for the cattle to get across.
The man on guard was puzzled for a moment just what to do, but realized the importance of avoiding hostilities with his neighbor, if it were possible. Finally he had an inspiration.
The boy who had done the mischief was well known in the neighborhood as somewhat defective mentally. Hastily removing his old coat, which had a very dilapidated lining, the resourceful observer turned it inside out and again put it on, dragging his old felt hat down over his eyes. Next he rubbed a handful of black dirt over his face, after which with blood curdling yells, he started down the hills toward the boy. One glimpse was enough for the youngster who fled to the house panic stricken. A little later on the diplomatist, resuming his normal appearance, apparently happened along in a leisurely way, repaired the fence and went home.
By a perhaps not unexplainable coincidence, the cattle remained on their own side of the fence thereafter.
Built the Ark"
In another locality there were four brothers whose personal traits were so markedly individual as to make the family stand out somewhat prominently in the community. All these amiable peculiarities were of course thoroughly understood by the local inhabitants. First one of the brothers and then another would figure in some transaction in a way to bring out the same family characteristic.
The oldest one of the four brothers bore the biblical name of Noah, and was a carpenter. Another brother often assisted him at the same trade. Still another brother was a farmer, while the fourth had no settled occupation.
These amusing details of the various activities of these brothers finally inspired a local humorist to sum up the doings of the four in the following luminous example of rural verse:
"Noah built the Ark,
Seth laid the floor,
Jim drove the geese in,
And Tom shut the door."